Watching Denominations Implode

It’s summertime, which means it’s the time for denominations to have their annual clusterf meetings.

The United Methodists already had theirs. At the 11th hour, a deal for new governance, allowing increased participation in denominational affairs for younger clergy, unraveled. They also reaffirmed their stance against gay clergy and gay marriage.

The Presbyterians are currently meeting (for 8 days — seriously, 8 days?!? — over the 4th of July(!)). They don’t seem to want young delegates, and the vice moderator resigned just a few days after her election, citing “pervasive, poisonous activity” in the PC(USA). You see, she solemnized the marriage between two women, in Washington, D.C., where that kind of thing is legal.

And now the Episcopalians have begun their meetings, and they’re arguing about the way that they come up with the budget. The same sex issues are on the agenda for later in the week. Steve Pankey has a valuable post on the generational divide that vexes his denomination, and I think the rest as well.

I’m watching all of this from afar, via the tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts of many dear friends — friends who are committed to these bureaucracies in spite of their sins. I don’t begrudge my friends their loyalties, and I take no joy in the inevitable in-fighting that these denominational meetings engender.

Honestly, I think it’s all pretty sad, and I know it really hurts many people involved. It also costs millions of dollars to have these meetings — money given by earnest church members. Money that could be spent on the mission of the gospel.

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  • Frank

    Yes they should stop wasting time/money/effort on the encouragement/affirmation of sinful activity.

    • Evelyn

      Romans 5:20-21 “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

      If you believe in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, there is no sinful activity. Everything is justified!

      • Frank

        Evelyn not sure how to respond to this other than to say “huh?”

        • Evelyn

          How about “duh”?

      • ben w.

        Evelyn, I’m assuming your idea of “Everything is justified” said with a bit of sarcasm. I hope so. Consider Paul’s very next thoughts in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul assumes that there is such a thing as sinful activity, and believers must be careful not to walk in that way. To walk in sin would be functional denial of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. And Paul continues in this vein when he makes imperative statements upon the Roman Christians: “Let not sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:12-14). The cross and resurrection of Jesus breaks the power of sin, but believers must be careful to actually walk in a manner of life that concurs with their confession and thus display that the resurrection is real and powerful in their life.

        • Evelyn

          I think that in Romans 6:1-2 he is referring to Romans 5:16-17 where he says: “The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned (Adam); for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.”

          Hence, “many transgressions” (or sins) resulted in the coming of Christ. So, he’s asking if we’ll get more grace (or perhaps the second coming of Christ) by transgressing which would be the logical outcome of realizing that our many transgressions led to God sending Christ and Christ’s grace in the first place. Apparently it is more logical to say that “we who died to sin” cannot still live in it. If you believe that Christ absolved us of our sins, there has been no more sin since his coming hence all acts are justified as acts of God. Christ eradicated sin and we can no longer “walk” in it.

          • ben w.

            I don’t want to belabor this here and co-opt the thread, so this will be my last one. If you’d like to hold that Christ’s death and resurrection eliminated all sin, I’d challenge you to find one published commentator or scholarly article that supports that view. But beyong biblical scholarship, does this world really appear *free* of sin??? Are you really OK with calling all acts “acts of God”? Maybe you’re speaking only of the lives of believers? Still, haven’t you known Christians who’ve committed grave sins? Have you not seen such sins in your own life?!? (I certainly have…)

            The Cross and Resurrection didn’t eradicate sin as such, but atoned for the sin of those who repent and entrust themselves wholly to Jesus. Murder was murder in AD 20, and murder was murder in AD 40. Because of the cross and resurrection though, actual murderers can be forgiven and remade into actual peacemakers.

            Murder, lying, and sexual immorality didn’t change; but murderers, liars, and the sexually immoral can change – by trusting in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Believers are no longer bound to the Law of Moses as a code to live by, but they are still bound to live by the “Law of Christ”.

          • Evelyn

            @Ben: God is omnipotent and omnipresent. He sacrifices people for you all the time, under the guise that they have “sinned”, so that you can feel good about yourself. Repentance or “change of mind” is a gift of grace. You can try to show up for it but you can’t actually do it without God’s help. Sin, in my book, is a form of ignorance but you’re not going to tell a five-year-old child that they are a grave sinner just because they haven’t reached the level of maturity and knowledge that you have, are you? Why do you blame murderers, liars, and sex-addicts when they are simply ignorant of the gravity of what they are doing? Because Christ came, they are instantly forgiven by God – no attempts at willful repentance are required. It’s a free gift.

          • Here’s your published commentator Ben: He used to preach that we’re all going to hell, then he saw the light. It’s a great story even if you don’t agree with his theology. He takes Jesus at his word that “it is finished.”

          • Casey

            @Lausten North,

            I think ben w. was provoking Evelyn to put forward a recognized/respected biblical commentator of some scholarly merit, no offense to Bishop Pearson.

          • ben w.

            (sorry, but I’m already reneging on my promise to not comment… but as Luther said, “sin boldly”)

            @Lausten North,

            I’d like to read his thoughts on the abolition of sin resulting from the unique sacrifice of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection, but when I go to his site, I’m unable to read any significant interaction with Christian Scripture because the glare eminating from the red “DONATE NOW” button bleeds over all the other content and makes it unreadable for me. Maybe it’s just my display settings.

            I understand that others have different opinions, my point is that those positions aren’t rooted in the biblical text, and especially not in Paul’s argument in the book of Romans.

          • Pearson was a right hand man to Billy Graham, how much more credentials do you want? That’s kinda the problem here isn’t it? A guy can have a theology degree, but if it is from a university that teaches a theology that you don’t like, you can say it is not credible. You can’t do that in academia. Maybe a few schools can be dismissed, or some people say Yale is better than Harvard, but a law degree is a law degree, a judge can’t dismiss your case because he doesn’t like your point of view. Your ideas have to stand in the full marketplace of ideas. You can sell a theological idea in one church and be considered nearly crazy in another.

      • Scot Miller

        Evelyn, you are a trouble maker. 🙂

  • ben w.

    Tony, you say, “Money that could be spent on the mission of the gospel.” What is the “mission of the gospel?” I’d like to see you unravel that in a series of posts in the future. After following your blog for a while, I really don’t know what you’d say this mission is.

    • Tony, I too would love for you to write more about your vision for the mission of God and the Gospel. I enjoyed getting to hear you speak about that (a little bit) at the “Funding The Missional Church” conference, and I realized I don’t get to hear/read much from you about that.

  • Bob Pearson

    Yes it is messy, confusing and off-putting. But it is faithful people trying to do their best to follow a newly changing spirit of God in the world. I do believe that these changes are the work of God and it is just people who are struggling to understand the changes. People who believe in a fixed God, a fixed Gospel and a fixed interpretation of Scripture are the ones that are struggling the most because they are resistant to changes that are being led by the Spirit of God in our world today. But as Dylan said, the times are a changing and people need to either get on the new wave or get off the boat.

    • Frank

      Yes we have a choice whether to conform to the standards of this world or to Gods standards. Sadly more and more are raising culture above God and making a tragic choice.

    • Usually, the good folks in the bureaucracy can’t see the forest for the trees.

      Thus, outsiders need to shake them by the lapels and shout at them to wake up.

      • But if all you are doing is standing outside and shouting “You suck!” then you aren’t going to be taken very seriously. You seem to care just enough about what goes on in denominations to be critical but not enough to engage for change. Monday morning quarterbacking is fun, but doesn’t really get results. If you are going to play the role of the prophet that see it through.

        It seems to me that you aren’t aware or are unwilling to acknowledge the numerous ways God is working through denominations, or that there are millions of faithful people who love Jesus as much as you do who have found the best way that they can truly follow Jesus is from within a denomination.

        My faith and theology leads me to believe that the best place *for me* to live as Jesus wants is within a denomination that has an official structure that helps me and my church discern God’s will with other Christians and churches.

        Denominations may not be the best place for you or the majority of other Christians today, but you sound fairly narrow-minded when you assume that your experience and context as a Christian will work for all the rest of us.

  • Tony, your blog titles are getting more and more sensational and hyperbolic. “Implode”? Really? Well, of course, not really. Wishful thinking perhaps, but not what is actually happening at these denominational meetings. Isn’t this how reform and change happens within bureacracies? They fight things out like this? I’m watching from afar as well, with great interest.

    • Steve, you’re starting to sound like a company man.

      • Speaking as somebody who loves both of you guys, I hope you won’t take amiss a mild snicker and an “IMHO, you’re both right.” 🙂

        Tony, I’m more of a denominational guy than you, but I generally agree with your critique of denoms. I have no use for bureaucracies and hope we keep trying to make flat networks work instead. But your title is kinda sensational.

        Steve, you are totally a company man. But you made me believe (at last fall’s Gathering) that there might be such a thing as a denomination that’s more helpful than limiting. So there’s that.

        Rock on, gentlemen.

  • I’d guess that you’ve spoken at conferences and events that have costs “millions of dollars.” This is money that could have also gone to “the mission of the gospel.”

  • Though the Episcopal Church’s budget process has been regrettable, I don’t think there is any reason to describe the denomination as imploding. The reason the process was poor was in part because it was totally new. Do you always get everything right the first time? Now, the budget is being resolved, young adults have adopted the motto “Lead Don’t Leave” and the legislative process is leading to renewal and restructure, which will likely end in us spending less money on General Convention in the future. I expect the Acts 8 Moment meeting tonight will be full to overflowing with people ready to reimagine the church in faithfulness to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anglican tradition has been around for a long time and I expect it to exist in America long after I do. Imagining otherwise may make for blog traffic, but it isn’t great reporting.

  • EricG

    I attend a mainline church. Anyone who follows the decades-long membership decline in these denoms and doesn’t see them as imploding is in denial. Maybe something can be done, but the trend has been consistent for a long time.

    That doesn’t mean we should give up, or can’t practice our faith. It means the beaureauceacy and leadership need to change much more than they have.

  • Maybe it’s because there is not “THE” gospel. Like all ancient scripts, it is up for interpretation. There is no need to argue about what Paul meant, only about what needs to be done next. And there shouldn’t be that much arguing about that. There is plenty of obvious work to be done, get started on that and let the elders talk about what to do next year. And we don’t need international organizations with funny hats and frocks. The book “Blessed Unrest” lays out how smaller organizations having been working toward the social goals started in last century and doing it quite successfully. They do it quietly, without public politicking. For some of them, when the job they set out to do was done, they disbanded and each person went on to something else. They didn’t hang around and preach about what a great job they did and give themselves an award and create a beauracracy so they could all have jobs or write songs about themselves or get Ken Burns to do a documentary, they went back to WORK.

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  • First I want to wave to Evelyn & Scot Miller … blast from the past

    It is absolutely a shame that we are so divisive and that we cannot truly love one another and we are splitting up denominations, pitting church body against one another. It is a disgrace.

    We then have folks outside of the church that just shake their head and continue to walk.

    • Casey


      I agree 100% that it is a shame to see the unity of any believing body split by unnecessary divisiveness and inner turmoil. Our unity in the body of Christ means that we “walk by the Spirit” so as not to “eat and devour one another” (Gal 3.15-16); it also requires people from all different classes and races and stations in life to submit their diversity to the unifying work of the Spirit in the gospel. God is not just saving individuals and preparing them for heaven [individualism can be treacherous to the unity of the church]; rather, he is creating a people among whom he can live and who in their shared life together will reproduce God’s life and character before a watching world.

      The rub comes when large bodies of believers are no longer reproducing God’s life and character before the watching world [either in word or deed]. The reasons denominations exist is because people actually believe something, which is quite important. And a proper function of a denomination is to keep the unity of faith among the churches represented. That being said, it isn’t surprising to see the denominations listed above struggling in this way.

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